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B.C. offering free contraceptives: Should the rest of Canada follow suit?

By Aymen Sherwani, March 28 2023

Starting on April 1, 2023, British Columbia will be the first province in Canada to offer full coverage for prescription contraceptives, including oral hormone pills, intrauterine devices (IUDs), contraceptive injections, subdermal implants, as well as the morning after pill — the government calling it a win for both healthcare and gender equity. This decision is coming after a United Way task force found that Canadian women are disproportionately impacted by period poverty and the affordability of reproductive health serving as an added barrier they face on top of other systemic issues like wage inequality. 

“Not being able to access period supplies can negatively affect people’s ability to go about their day-to-day activities,” said Nicholas Simons, minister of social development and poverty reduction, who is also an advocate for free menstrual products amidst an ever-rising cost of living crisis within the province.

Until 2015, Canadian women were forced to pay an additional sales tax on menstrual products, many referring to it as the tampon tax, due to such products being labelled non-essential, whereas other products such as ChapStick were considered to be basic necessities. The move to offer free contraceptives highlights issues that are even larger — the intersections of poverty and sexual assault, domestic violence, and access to abortion clinics in rural Canadian regions. 

It is no secret that women who are unhoused face disproportionate levels of sexual violence compared to women who are unhoused. The nature of assault does not consider the consent of the woman, nor does it consider the necessary precautions taken by two consenting people to engage in safe sexual intercourse. Thus, there exists a higher risk of pregnancy for a woman who already experiences financial barriers of access limiting her access to a home, let alone afford contraception. Women find themselves paying $20 a month for oral contraceptives and — if they are not covered by private or provincial health insurance — around $80–$360 for IUDs.  Unhoused women should not have to choose between food and contraception. 

Homeless Hub also reports that Indigenous women are overrepresented within this demographic, adding a racialized element to who is able to access what should be a human right but is, rather, a privilege. Abortion, while technically free in Canada, has been found to cost up to $1000 across regions in Canada, when considering administrative fees and at what stage of pregnancy the procedure is being conducted. The rest of Canada following suit with British Columbia by providing free contraception would help vulnerable women and relieve an exhausted foster care system that is overrepresented racially — more than half of children in foster care are Indigenous — attempting to end the cycle of poverty that so many experience. 

Unhoused women, however, are also not the only beneficiaries of free contraception as some women that require birth control the most are those attempting to flee situations of domestic violence within the home. Situations of domestic violence are complex and every woman’s circumstances are different with respect to culture as well as their relationship with their abuser and his family. They may fear that having a child against their consent with their abuser would permanently link them together or also create a harmful environment for this said child as well. Some women lack the agency of having a private life or the ability to leave the house and be financially independent, so it would be incredibly difficult to hide contraceptive pills, pregnancy or an abortion. British Columbia offering free and undetectable IUDs will be life-changing for these women and only make their lives easier as they attempt to navigate the cycle of abuse.

Access to safe abortion clinics in rural areas of Canada continues to be an issue and access to contraception and the morning-after pill is the solution. There are only three abortion clinics in Alberta — two in Calgary and one in Edmonton — leaving anyone who does not live in an urban centre with a high cost of travel and time off of work for something that they should not have to disclose to their employers. Increased funding to ensure that contraceptives are free and accessible to rural women would solve the issue of limited access to abortion and supply issues in rural pharmacies, which often run out of their stock of IUDs over the course of a year. 

At the end of the day, this measure helps all and hurts none. Most recently, the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) and their leader, Rachel Notley, have promised to cover the cost of contraceptives for Albertans if elected. At the same time, access to reproductive rights and safe contraception are met with swift and vitriolic opposition in Alberta from pro-life groups such as the Alberta March For Life Association, which plans on hosting a rally on May 11, 2023. 

“Undoubtedly we are against abortion even as we are against murder and all other injustices against human life, although the wilful and deliberate killing of the unborn is the most egregious,” a statement on their website reads. “More than this, however, we are for the celebration of life, irrespective of its stage of development, appearance, or cognitive state, because all human beings have inherent and inviolable dignity that neither a state nor an authority confers and cannot retract.”

Ironic statements about the inherent and inviolable dignity of human beings fail to consider the autonomous decisions a woman can make about her own health and safety, including if carrying a pregnancy to term is a health risk. Despite abortion being legal and British Columbia being the first province in what many hope to be a sweeping trend for greater access to contraception, disarray and misinformation persist. We hope that this new measure is a catalyst for change in Canada.

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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